Had it been close to Halloween or Mardi Gras, both celebrated exuberantly by the Viennese, the white-hooded figures seen prowling the stylish Kaerntnerstrasse might have been dismissed as party-goers showing excessively bad taste.
But the rowdy youths in Ku Klux Klan trappings have been sighted in the city between costume “seasons.” They have burned crosses in the Vienna woods and boarded trams in poorer suburbs to chase foreigners out.
Evidence of Klan activity in placid Austria has coincided with a disturbing winter in which right-wing radicals have posted electoral victories, xenophobia has exploded and neo-Nazis have come into the open to flaunt politics of intimidation and violence.
Austrian police have recently arrested several extremists for membership in banned Nazi parties and for plotting an armed takeover of the government. But as police logs have filled with incidents from vandalism of Jewish graves to fire-bombing of immigrant shelters, a nagging question has resurfaced: Has Austria ever come to grips with its tainted past?
History has tended to treat Austria as the first victim of Adolf Hitler’s aggressive march through Europe. But in March, 1938, when the Nazis took over this country of Hitler’s birth, many Austrians welcomed the anschluss (union) with a Greater Germany bent on conquering the Continent.
Proportionally more Austrians than Germans belonged to the Nazi Party, and Austrians served in senior positions within Hitler’s leadership and in the heinous network of concentration camps erected to exterminate Europe’s Jews.
Because the Western allies viewed Austria as Hitler’s victim, the nation never underwent the de-Nazification process to which Germany was exposed. Some believe that today’s surge of right-wing extremism could be tempered by a candid reassessment of Austria’s past.
Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who makes his home in Vienna, says Austria is now paying the price for having escaped the rigorous re-education program to which Germans were exposed after the war. “One has to remember that many Austrians were supportive of Hitler and what he stood for. Sixty percent of the camp commanders were Austrians,” Wiesenthal said.
Young Austrians would benefit from a concerted effort to expose their war history to a more critical light, the Holocaust survivor said, advocating a program that would first work on the misconceptions held by parents, teachers and clerics. “It’s never too late,” Wiesenthal says. “Conversely, the longer the problem is allowed to languish, the more difficult it will be to correct.”
Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky broke a longstanding taboo last year when, for the first time in postwar history, the government leader described Austrians as “implicated” in the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were killed.
There has been little public soul-searching on the issue since Vranitzky’s stirring comment in a parliamentary speech. But the recent rise in neo-Nazi activity has again brought the subject of latent fascism to the fore.
Police in January arrested leading neo-Nazi figure Gottfried Kuessel for allegedly trying to revive the banned party, and security forces also broke up a small but heavily armed extremist group suspected of plotting to overthrow the government and set up a fascist state. There have also been numerous arrests of skinheads and other radicals for fire-bombing a home for asylum-seekers in upper Austria and for beating up foreigners they see as a threat to native Austrians’ jobs and prosperity.
Despite the crackdown on radical activity, authorities have been shackled by overly punitive laws. Most offenses for neo-Nazi activity carry a sentence of life imprisonment, which has made judges and juries reluctant to convict many of the young offenders brought to trial.
Noting that only a handful of suspects had drawn jail sentences from among more than 600 cases alleging neo-Nazi crimes, the Austrian government in January proposed legislative changes that would make it easier to prosecute right-wing extremists.
The revised law against creating or joining a fascist party would allow sentences as light as one year, and another proposal would make it a crime to deny that the Holocaust transpired.
Outbursts by neo-Nazi gangs and increasing violence against foreigners, especially against Eastern European refugees who have flooded into Austria since the Iron Curtain collapsed, have drawn criticism from Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, himself accused of complicity in Nazi war crimes during his World War II service with a German unit in the Balkans.
“Extreme right-wing activities have made it clear how necessary it is to be on constant guard against destructive powers which endanger both the state and internal order,” Waldheim warned in an address in January. “Uncertainty and fear of a world which has become less and less clear is leading people to flee into the past.”
Austria, a country of less than 8 million, has long been a neutral corridor between East and West, through which those fleeing communism were welcome to travel throughout the Cold War. When the Hungarian uprising against dictatorship failed in 1956, hundreds of thousands fleeing the Communists’ brutal crackdown were given refuge in Austria.
The number of refugees sheltered in Austria today is considerably smaller than 35 years ago. But conditions have changed, making the Austrians of today less hospitable and more fearful that the newcomers will compete for scarce jobs, housing and services.
“It’s very tragic, but our society has been taught to measure itself by economic prosperity and well-being,” which are threatened by those fleeing economic misery in the East, says Reinhold Knoll of Vienna’s Sociology Institute.
Blaming weak leadership and political opportunism for the xenophobic trend gripping Austria, the sociologist says his country and much of the rest of Central Europe is suffering from moral decay.
“What is of great concern is the gradual legitimization of these attitudes,” Knoll said. “Many people are of the opinion that if they want to avoid economic crisis, all the Eastern Europeans should simply be sent back where they came from.”
Austrian resentment of foreigners has been evident in recent local elections. A November vote in Vienna gave 23% of city government seats to the far-right Freedom Party, which campaigned on promises of restoring “Vienna for the Viennese.”
A poll conducted in February by the weekly magazine Profil indicated that most respondents were concerned by the recent outbreak of neo-Nazi activity, but one in three considered it a “fringe manifestation” that should not be taken too seriously.
While acts of violence are scattered and believed to be committed by a relatively small group of extremists, the current of xenophobia runs deep in Austrian society.
A Gallup Poll conducted in October showed that nearly one-third of those questioned admitted to disliking Jews. One in five said they thought their country would be better off if there were no Jews at all, and 31% said they did not want Jewish neighbors.
Hatred of the economic refugees from poorer regions of Europe is openly displayed by many Austrians. Shop clerks are often rude to those who speak German with an accent, and government bureaucrats seldom attempt to cover up blatant discrimination against those with dark skin.